Negativity always comes with a price. A big one. It’s easy for me to be a critic. I grew up in a family that prided itself in finding what’s wrong with the world and each other. It was sort of a sport around the dinner table to see who would outwit the rest and deliver the best put down. We all laughed, but someone always got hurt.
Now I’m a professional critic whose livelihood is partially funded by my ability to discern what’s wrong or what’s not working and help organizations figure out how to communicate in order to move to the next level. Being a critic is dangerous, and I’m very aware of the negativity that can creep in and suck the life out of every experience.
I have to work hard on being positive because cynicism and negativity are the first ones at my gate. I don’t want to end up like a lot of the angry people out there whose lives are dedicated to criticizing, denouncing, exposing, and judging people, who most often, they don’t even know. Sadly, the internet has given them a perfect dark place to hide and hate.
Henri Nouwen writes about his encounter with an angry man and the effect it had on him. This is a long passage, but worth the reading.
He sat in front of me. He was in his early sixties. The deep lines in his face, his unkempt hair, but mostly his burned-out eyes showed he was a very unhappy man. We talked about the weather, “It’s hot” he said, “Much too hot, I can hardly breathe, the humidity kills me.” I tried to cheer him up a little by saying, ‘We can use a little sun, and the humidity, well think of it as a free sauna.’ But he did not hear me. No smile came to his face. He began to talk about a colleague who left him many years ago. About a friend who had not called or written to him for two months, and about his neighbors who kept him awake during the afternoon when he wanted to take a nap. My presence was little more than an occasion for him to pour out his many complaints.
He pointed out to me the corruption in our government, the war in Bosnia, the hunger in Somalia, the violence in South Africa. “The world is falling apart all over the place”, he said, “the television, the radio, the newspapers, they all show it. And they don’t even show the full truth.” I felt a sensation of darkness creeping around me. Where is this darkness coming from, I wondered. I am face to face with an angry man.
So, I said nothing. I remained silent out of a deep feeling of powerlessness in front of so much rage.
When I returned home and found myself all alone, I noticed that my body was shaking. I laid down in my bed and stared at the ceiling. And then I saw the angry man again. I saw him, not sitting in front of me, but walking slowly, bent over, pulling an enormous load behind him. He groaned and moaned as he moved forward. At times he seemed to lose his balance.
As I continued to stare at the ceiling, I saw them all. Men, women, children emerging out of his long past. Chained to each other and to him. And while I kept looking in horror at the old man and his burden, the voice returned to me and said, “You are the man. You are the one you just met.” I didn’t want to hear those words, but the voice went on. “Don’t you see that you can’t let go of your burden. Don’t you see, you are the burden carrier. Don’t you see that without your burden, you don’t know who you are.” I protested, ‘But I don’t want such a burden! I don’t care for such a load.’ But gradually, my heart caused me to see that taking away my burden from me would be like taking the boat from the fisherman or the keys from the janitor or the car from the chauffeur or the bricks from the builder. Who would I be without my anger? Who would I be without anyone to judge or condemn? Who would I be without my complaints, without my feelings of rejection? Yes, without enemies? I am the victim. The one who cannot survive without my burden. I have become my burden.”
It’s easy for me to hide behind my professional duty to see what’s wrong, broken, the mediocre and let the insidious work of negativity to shape me in to the angry old man Nouwen encountered. I fight it every day. Sometimes I think I’m losing that war.
Are you a critic? Is it easy for you to see what’s wrong in a situation?